Winston Churchill once said that meeting Franklin D. Roosevelt was like uncorking a bottle of champagne. Well, meeting Mary Flanagan is like plunging into a swimming pool full of the stuff. Her enthusiasm for her work effervesces; her ideas bubble effusively into conversation. Like the digital media she works in, her thought processes are complex, nonlinear, discursiveŅand a lot of fun.
A young assistant professor of digital arts, Flanagan was already an acclaimed producer and designer of interactive educational software when she joined UB's media study faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1997. Her colleagues at Human Code Inc., an Austin, Texas, firm that developed titles for Discovery Channel Multimedia, liked to incorporate pixieish caricatures of Flanagan into their creations. Thus she is author and occasional star of such hits as SkyTrip America: An Incredible Ride Through U.S. History (winner of the 1997 Newsweek Editor's Choice Award), Schoolhouse Rock: America Rock (winner of Parenting magazine's 1997 Software Magic Award) and Nile: Passage to Egypt (the Software Publishers Association 1996 Codie Award winner).
Flanagan's boundless energy and keen software-authoring skills were evident her first semester in the media study department. In addition to teaching her regular course load, she developed Internet courseware with computer science grad student Christopher Egert that allows students to post projects online, where Flanagan and classmates can review and critique the work. The goal of IOS (Integrated Online Seminar), an evolving educational tool, is to help students organize coursework and put together portfolios they can take with them as they continue their studies or venture into careers in the field. She currently teaches courses in digital sound design, gender and technology, multimedia design and electronic media in education.
Flanagan didn't come back to academia because she'd lost the joy of designing children's educational software. On the contrary, she saw an opportunity for greater expression and a chance to expand her ideas beyond the narrow parameters of the commercial software field. "I have a lot of freedom in what I teach and how I teach," she says.
At UB, Flanagan heads up a multimedia internship program of about 15 students working on a project called "The Adventures of Josie True," designed for nine- to eleven-year-old girls. Josie is an Asian girl, a time-traveling hero who sets off on an adventure to find her missing teacher. Along the way she encounters Bessie Coleman, a real-life African American pilot who made a career of stunt-flying long before anybody had ever heard of Amelia Earhart.
"I hold a firm belief that cyberspace can be used to tell a variety of different stories," says Flanagan. "You don't have to reinforce the cultural, normative stereotypes currently offered by the media."
She found that software products on the open market designed for girls rarely had substantive educational content. The underlying assumption seemed to be that girls just weren't interested in computers, so the games were designed not to challenge but simply to amuse.
Issues raised in the construction of "The Adventures of Josie True" dovetail with Flanagan's long-standing interest in gender studies. In her research and her writing, she examines the types of interfaces that multimedia designers place between themselves and their end-users. What she often finds is a stultifying lack of imagination and under-utilization of the medium's potential.